Change is in the air, but it’s just a misunderstanding: Social marketing for airlines explained

Over the past few years, many marketers and consultants, including ourselves, have consistently talked about the benefits of social marketing. Yet, today, it seems that organic reach may soon be a thing of the past and brands will have to pay in order to reach users on “social media”. As a result, many marketers are confused.

So what happened? Was it a passing fad, or are we talking about two different things?

As it turns out, the answer is the latter. Yes, organic reach is declining and may approach zero, but this will have little impact on social marketing strategies. The real problem is that the true meaning of social marketing is often misunderstood.

This article will strive to clarify what social marketing really is, why it matters, and when it is appropriate for airlines to use it. To do so, we will start with a question that I often use when delivering masterclasses:

Was Stonehenge built using social networks?

social network meaning

The answer, of course, is yes.

However in today’s context, the term “social network” has been widely used to describe things like Facebook or Pinterest, and has been largely deprived of its real meaning. Allow me to explain:

A social connection is a link between two individuals. This can be a direct link, for example between two friends, or an indirect link, meaning that the individual is a friend of a friend.

A social network is the sum of connections between individuals. In this network, each individual is a node that can be connected to each through direct or indirect social connections. At birth this network is limited to a child’s immediate family but is gradually and instinctively expanded, getting more complex with time.

In marketing social networks are important because they represent the structure of society and the natural grid along which all information is shared.

For the sake of clarity, before we delve deeper into social networks, it is important to address another question:

So what do we call that Facebook thing?

Facebook is not a social network. The correct technical term should be “social networking service” or SNS. This is because at its core, Facebook is a service (or tool) that helps users maintain and expand their social connections.

This distinction is key to understanding what social marketing is. In social marketing, the word ‘social’ refers to the concept of social networks, not social networking services (SNS). In other words, although SNS are heavily used in today’s social marketing strategies, these are merely tools. The core of a social marketing strategy lies in understanding and leveraging the social network in order to spread a message.

Unfortunately, this distinction was often missed during the hype around social networking services. As a result, a number of well-meaning publications and experts put out large amounts of materials often confusing the tool  with the strategy.  Many marketers ended up basing their strategies on this incorrect interpretations and are now having trouble dealing with the constant changes in social networking services.


Social Communication vs. Mass Communication

What distinguishes social marketing is that it takes into account the social network and attempts to create messages that will flow naturally through it. Its key advantage is that by using social connections to spread its message it obtains a better reception. This is because of humans’ natural inclination to treat information coming from within their social network as more reliable.

Mass marketing, on the other hand, focuses on delivering a message directly to each individual with little regard for its subsequent distribution. As such, mass marketing requires greater investment in pushing the message to consumers and suffers from lower impact on the individuals it reaches. However, the advantage is that its message does not does not require the same level of consistency that is needed in social marketing.

The difference in using mass marketing versus social marketing also reflects how a company perceives/positions its own product. Brands based on a sustained product differentiation are best marketed by building a long-term, loyal relationship with the customer. At the opposite end of the scale, price-focused companies, who perceived their product as commodities have better results with mass marketing.

The impact on aviation

A typical way to illustrate this divide is by comparing Ryanair, that uses a mass marketing approach, with Southwest Airlines that has adopted a social marketing strategy. At first look, both airlines seem to be competing on price since they are both low-cost carriers, but a closer analysis reveals several differences.

Ryanair is sometimes defined as an “ultra low-cost” airline because of its extreme focus on price and cost reduction. As such, the airline perceives its product as an absolute commodity, where the price is the only factor that determines the purchase.

Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, places a considerable emphasis on being the “LUV” airline, offering value for money while also highlighting its internal culture and giving back to the community. Southwest strives to keep prices low but also offers excellent customer service, and is prepared to go the extra mile to help customers.

As a result, Southwest Airlines customers are more likely to build a long-term preference for the airline, and develop an emotional attachment to its brand. On the other hand, Ryanair customers are only loyal to the lowest available price, and the airline is prepared to do anything to reduce its cost base.

As the financial success of ultra low-cost airlines demonstrates, there is space for at least one price-focused competitor in each market. However, this success is based on shaky grounds because of passengers’ tendency to trade up when better service-based alternatives are within their budget.

While the success of ultra low cost airlines rests on their ability to remain the lowest-priced in the market, the bulk of the airline industry should avoid going down the path of commoditisation. Because ultimately, aviation is and will always remain a service industry.

What’s your approach?

Take five minutes to re-think your current marketing strategy. Do you want customers who will desert you as soon as your prices become uncompetitive — or would you prefer to build a dedicated, loyal customer base? Is your airline currently doing more mass marketing (more suited for commoditised industries) or should you be investing in social marketing?

Always remember: being on social networking sites is not the same as having a coherent social marketing strategy.

Questions, objections, feedback? Please comment below or tweet us @simpliflying.

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